The Tragic Life of Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr (source)

Clara Immerwahr was brilliant . . . with bad taste in men. But Clara’s bad choice translated into a very tragic story.

Clara was the youngest of four children in a comfortable, cultured family. They spent most of the year on the family farm and winters in Breslau with Clara’s grandmother. She and her sisters were tutored privately and attended a girls’ school located in her grandmother’s home.

Although her sisters wanted to marry, Clara bristled at the mention of the “prospective sphere of women’s occupations.” She was interested in natural science and had a desire to be financially independent. When her mother died in 1890, her father turned operation of the farm over to Clara’s sister Elli and her husband and moved with Clara to Breslau. There she attended a teacher’s seminary where the principal recognized her abilities and gave her a copy of Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet. 

After completing her teacher training, Clara worked as a governess, but she still had a desire for more training in science, specifically chemistry. Her father’s university degree was in chemistry and he was delighted to support and help her.

By 1896, women were allowed to attend university lectures at Breslau as visitors, but Clara continued to fight for permission to take the qualifying exam for admittance into the doctoral program. In 1898, she became the first woman to pass the exam. Then on December 12, 1900, she achieved another first when she graduated magna cum laude with a Ph.D. in chemistry, becoming the first woman to receive this degree from a German university.

In spite of her achievement, it was still a boys club. Clara was able to work as an assistant to Richard Abegg, her doctoral advisor, do some research and give lectures to women’s organizations and schools, but she was limited because of her gender.

Around this time, Clara became reacquainted with Fritz Haber. Fritz had proposed to her several years before, but she had turned him down. At the time she was focused on her own studies. When they met again in the spring of 1901, the flame was rekindled and they married in August of that year.

Haber had developed quite a reputation. He was respected for his work in chemistry and had developed a method to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that could be used in fertilizer. This method revolutionized agriculture and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber in 1919 (source)

Fritz was a professor at the Technological University in Karlsruhe. He was ambitious and frequently brought home guests unannounced. Clara thought at first that she would be able to continue her research, but the demands of homemaking and soon motherhood proved too much. However, she did collaborate with Fritz on his work and on a textbook about thermodynamics. He dedicated the book to Clara with thanks for “quiet collaboration.”

In spite of this, he had little respect for Clara’s work. As a workaholic, he also had little time for Clara and their son, Hermann. He traveled frequently and had affairs with other women.

Fritz Haber’s star continued to rise and in 1911, he was appointed head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. This honor came with a position as professor at the University of Berlin and membership in the Prussian Academy of Science. In spite of these honors, he may have felt some pressure to prove his patriotism.

Both Fritz and Clara were Jewish and had converted to Christianity in 1893 and 1897, respectively. Antisemitism was prevalent, including a ban preventing Jews from being officers in the army, and even very talented people of Jewish birth came under suspicion.

When the war broke out in 1914, Fritz volunteered his services and soon came up with a horrifying idea. He concentrated his work on poison gas and suggested that chlorine gas could be released to drift over the enemy’s position, disabling them without bombardment.

Clara was appalled and on more than one occasion begged him to stop his research on chemical warfare. She opposed him openly and he accused her in public of treasonous statements. When Clara received her Ph.D., she took an oath to “never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.” She believed that Fritz had perverted the ideals of science.

There were also German commanders who thought the use of poisonous gas was “unchivalrous” or “repulsive,” but might be necessary if it meant victory. The first gas attack occurred on April 22, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. After waiting for the winds to be just right, 168 tons of chlorine gas were released and drifted over the Allied troops, killing over half of them within minutes. A second attack was launched two days later.

Fritz was promoted to captain and returned to Berlin to a party in his honor on May 2, the day before he was to go to the Eastern front to oversee similar attacks. Early in the morning after the party, Clara took her husband’s revolver into the garden and shot herself. Her son heard the shot and she died in his arms. The next day Fritz went to the Russian front leaving 13-year old Hermann to deal with his mother’s suicide alone.

Since the 1970s, Clara’s life has received more attention. She is seen as an example of protest against the misuse of science. The most prestigious award given by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is called the Clara Immerwahr award; the University of Dortmund has a mentoring project for women named for her; and Clara is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds. It may have taken a little time, but she hasn’t been forgotten.

Resources
Jewish Women’s Archive: Clara Immerwahr
Smithsonian Magazine: Past Imperfect: Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death

Read about other Women in Mathematics and Science.

Posted in Female "Firsts", Scientists | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Harriet Boyd Hawes – On the Dig at Kavousi

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting.

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting before she began her search for a site.

In 1965, the journal Archaeology published two articles from the memoirs and letters of Harriet Boyd Hawes. The materials were provided by her daughter, Mrs. Mary N. Allsebrook, who also wrote a biography of her mother. I enjoyed reading them and I thought I’d share a little with you about Harriet’s first excavation at Kavousi. Links to both articles are below.

Background

Crete had been under Ottoman rule since the seventeenth century, but there were a number of uprisings in the late 19th century. In August 1898, hundreds of Cretan Greeks were massacred along with the British Consul and 17 British soldiers. As a result, Turkish forces were expelled from the island and an autonomous Cretan State was established under the protection of an international force with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner.

This change in the political landscape opened the door for archaeologists and “England, Italy and France applied for sites on which to excavate.” The American school at Athens that Harriet attended had all of its funds tied up in excavations at Corinth, so Harriet “believing that Americans ought, if possible, to have a share in the exploration of Crete,” decided to use what money was left from her fellowship and explore.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving on Crete

On April 10, 1900, Harriet set sail with a Miss Patten of Boston who wanted to study plant life, their foreman Aristides Pappadias and his mother. They were “much tossed about” in a dingy little boat before they spied the walls of the fort guarding the harbor of Candia. Their luggage was tossed on another boat and Harriet says, “I was lifted and swung from steamer to boat by a huge Soudanese, black as Egypt’s darkness, who seemed to enjoy immensely the exercise of his strength. It must have been a funny site – the boat plunging up and down, for the waves were high, and I wriggling in the big black man’s arms, in mid air.”

They were met by a man from Arthur Evans staff and made welcome at the British School house and the excavation at Knossos. They soon rented a little house of their own for $4/month where their lives were simple. They had “a table, two chairs, our two cot-beds, a few cupboards and boxes – plates etc. enough to serve with very frequent washing.” Aristides did the shopping and Manna, his mother, did the cooking and housekeeping.

Finding Their Site

Game table found at the chief's house at Kavousi. (source)

Game table found at the chief’s house at Kavousi. (source)

When they set out to explore, they had no roads to follow, only mule tracks. Manna stayed behind in charge of the house, and Harriet, Jean (I assume this is Miss Patten) and Aristides took off on their mules with a guide. They encountered numerous villages which had suffered during the conflicts which ended just a couple of years before. They encountered “villages, many of which we found utterly ruined, about an equal number of Mohammedan villages burned by Christians, and of Christian villages burned by Mohammedans.”

Although Harriet had visited many excavation sites in Greece, she was unsure of her ability to see and select her own site. She talked to the locals, asking about items they had found in the fields, but said that “it is not easy to discriminate between worthless gossip and valuable evidence.”

Aristides was evidently an impressive man , dressed in traditional Greek clothes associated with patriotic heroes. He rode ahead of the ladies and ordered coffee, treating others and laying the groundwork. When the ladies arrived it was assumed that they were very important since they accompanied someone like Aristides. Soon people began to bring them items that they had found and offer to show them the locations.

Everywhere they went they were treated exceptionally well. It was Holy Week, but they were offered wonderful food even though most people were eating sparsely for Lent. They were also offered shelter every night. Harriet thought there were three main reasons for the hospitality: 1) the Cretans were hospitable people, 2) the village they excavated at would benefit financially, and 3) the fact that ladies could travel without fear was evidence that the land was safe again.

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

They couldn’t dig without official authorization, so they had to make their selection based on what they found above ground, but were surprised how much there was to choose from. But Kavousi had been recommended by Arthur Evans, so they wanted to wait until they had seen it.

When they reached Kavousi, the people welcomed them warmly and as usual began to show them pieces they had found. Harriet saw several locations where she believed tombs existed, but she made up her mind when an “old, old man” brought her “three fine early bronzes.” At the site where he found them, she found a “small acropolis and many early walls” and what she thought would be a temple.

Harriet made up her mind to excavate at Kavousi and wasted no time obtaining permission. They “made sixty miles from Kavousi in two days – quite fast for mules and wooden saddles.” She submitted her petition at Herakleion and waited. She wrote home, “I hope within five days to have permission to excavate ‘in the neighborhood of Kavousi and Episcope,’ and within ten days I hope to be at work with thirty men.”

On the dig

Harriet and Miss Patten rented a small house to live in and for their headquarters at Kavousi. It had a wooden gate that led into a courtyard surrounded by “storerooms, stables and kitchen.” The room where they slept was reached from the roof of one of the storerooms and was one of only two rooms in the village with a wooden floor. They placed tables and chairs on one of the roofs where they had a spectacular view. They were pleased with the available food: sheep’s milk, eggs, bread, lamb, chicken, artichokes and beans, with olive oil and spices. Canned food was used only for lunch at the site.

On the first day after they were settled, Aristides asked the men of the village who wanted to dig to come to the courtyard. Harriet was familiar with the language because of her nursing activities during the war, so together they chose ten men who became “Firsts.” These men took on supervisory roles as more workers were added and nine of them stayed with Harriet throughout all of her excavations on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

At times the digging was boring and seemed unfruitful, but finally an exciting find was made on the Kastro, a 2000 foot peak. They transferred the workmen and “daily made the difficult ascent on mules as far as the Ridge, an hour’s climb, whence we reached the top by a hand and foot scramble.” There they excavated what Harriet called the “home of a Highland Chief of Homer’s time.”

Another exciting find occurred near the end of the season when she allowed two boys to dig at a place that didn’t seem promising at all. She gave them permission because she didn’t want to discourage their enthusiasm, but when they yelled “Lady, Lady” she knew they had found something exciting. It turned out to be a bee-hive tomb that was undisturbed from 3000 years earlier. In this tomb they found skeletons, vases, a large pithos and many small metal objects.

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (source).

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

Overall, Harriet was very pleased and so were the villagers. “They would have much to discuss through the winter, much to tell passing travelers, and could claim for Kavousi an importance it had never before enjoyed among the villages of Eastern Crete.”

Although the digging was over for the season, Harriet’s work wasn’t done. She headed back to Candia where she spent time writing her report to the American School at Athens and cataloging her finds. Harriet’s excavation at Kavousi was the first on Crete led by an American and she undertook it purely on her own initiative. The next time she returned it would be to excavate for the American Exploration Society of Philadelphia.

Read more about Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Resources
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Posted in Ancient History, Educators, Writers | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes

“Riding on mule-back in attire like that shown in her photograph, accompanied by the faithful Aristides (a native of northwestern Greece) with his mother as chaperon, she was apparently perfectly unconscious – in the best American tradition – of doing anything unusual or courageous.” From the Introduction to Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes.

When Harriet Boyd finally decided that she wanted to study Greek archaeology at the source, in Greece, it must have been frustrating to find that her instructors didn’t think she should get her hands dirty. They expected female archaeologists to become librarians or museum curators, but she had always been more inclined to action than academics. So she set off to find her own site to excavate.

Early Life

Born on October 11, 1871, Harriet was the youngest of five children and the only girl.  Her mother died while she was still an infant and whatever her father did to try to “rouse domestic tastes” and “induce womanliness”, according to Harriet’s daughter, was useless against the influence of her brothers. Her doll house was taken over by a “military coup”, she would “scout” for the boys and took delight in pyrotechnic shows. They also had an area in their home where they kept pet squirrels. It was a happy, rowdy home and Harriet loved it.

One person who had a particular influence on Harriet was her brother Alex. Eleven years her senior he was a parental figure of sorts. He was especially influential in her love of and decision to study the Classics at Smith College. When he died her senior year it was a very sad time for her, but she graduated in 1892 and had to make a decision about what to do with her life.

For the next four years, Harriet taught school, first in a boarding school for impoverished students in North Carolina and then in a finishing school. When she became dissatisfied with teaching, she decided to take a tour of Europe. She was able to do this in part because of her inheritance from Alex. In this way he helped to set her on the path to her destiny.

Excavations in Crete

The sources I read didn’t give a name, but supposedly Harriet met a man in Europe who challenged her not to study Classics in Europe or America, but to go right to the source. Also, as a student at Smith, she heard a lecture by Amelia Edwards about her travels up the Nile. (Edwards wrote a book titled A Thousand Miles up the Nile which became a best seller about her adventures in Egypt and Egyptian archeology.) At that time she became intrigued by archaeology. Now she decided to combine the two, took the man’s advice and, in 1896, enrolled at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia. (Author: Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons)

Her graduate studies went well, but as she advanced she wanted to take part in field work. As I mentioned, the common expectation for women in archaeology was that they would work as librarians or curators. Harriet had already made a bit of a stir by traveling to Greece without a chaperone and riding around Athens on her bicycle, so when she couldn’t get an excavation site through the school she decided to strike out on her own.

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

In the spring of 1900, Harriet decided to go to Crete and look for her own site. This involved traveling around and talking to farmers and villagers about the artifacts they found. She obtained all the necessary permissions to excavate and decided on Kavousi. With the help of hired workers, she excavated baskets of artifacts, a house, a number of Iron Age tombs, a small “castle” and one 3000 year old undisturbed bee-hive tomb. It might not have compared to the finds Arthur Evans was currently finding at Knossos, but it was her excavation. She returned to the US and published her work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Returning the next year, Harriet made the discovery that she would be primarily remembered for, Gournia. After several discouraging weeks of searching for a new site, they were led to a place with “old walls” by a local man named George Petakis. Deciding that it looked promising, Harriet sent the men ahead the next day while she took care of mail. When she arrived, the site was buzzing with excitement. All the men were eager to show them what they had found and it was clear they had their site. Three days after first seeing Gournia, she sent a telegram saying “Discovered Gournia Mycenaean site, street, houses, pottery, bronzes, stone jars.”

Gournia consisted of a small acropolis surrounded by paved roads, more than 70 houses and “the small palace of the local governor.”  It was a town of workers and artisans with evidence of weaving, fishing, bronze-casting, and the making of pottery of different types. They discovered pottery ranging in age from around 2500 to 1000 BCE. Gournia was rich with history. All of this provided three years work for Harriet and her crew, 1901, 1903, and 1904.

Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete; excavations of the Wells-Houston-Cramp expeditions, 1901, 1903, 1904. By Harriet Boyd Hawes, Blanche E. Williams, Richard B. Seager, Edith H. Hall Philadelphia, The American Exploration Society, Free Museum of Science and Art, 1908

Pottery found at Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete by Boyd’s team. (source)

Harriet had a talent for organizing, but she also had a desire to share her passion. She took on a number of younger archaeologists such as Blanche Williams, Edith Hall, and Richard Seager. And since excavating is a seasonal activity, she also taught Greek archaeology at Smith and gave lectures for the Archaeological Institute of America becoming a recognized authority on Crete.

Nursing

Harriet took time out from her life regardless of where she was to be of service through nursing. Her talent for organizing extended to field hospitals. In 1897, she took time off from school to nurse soldiers during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1915, she took supplies and relief to wounded Serbian soldiers at Corfu. The next year she went to France.

Then in 1917, she spoke to an alumnae group at Smith about war relief. The first Smith Relief Unit sailed for France in August of that year led by Harriet and consisting of doctors, professors, social workers and of course a few archaeologists.

Personal Life

Gournia was the last excavation that Harriet directed. Her active life was complicated by the fact that at the age of 35, she decided to marry. During one of her trips to Greece, she met and fell in love with Charles Henry Hawes a British anthropologist. They married on May 3, 1906 and had two children, Alexander Boyd Hawes and Mary Nesbit Hawes.

Even though she gave up field work, she didn’t give up archaeology. In addition to publishing the results of the Gournia excavation, she and Charles wrote a book together called Crete: The Forerunner of Greece. She also continued teaching, lecturing and nursing.

Harriet did consider having a family an “interruption” in her active life, but she said that whether or not a woman was happy in this decision would “depend largely on her having anticipated it as part of the Good Life.”

Harriet Boyd Hawes was a pioneering woman in archaeology and should be remembered as such. She died on March 31, 1943 at the age of 73.

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis, Wikimedia Commons

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis at en.wikipedia

 

Resources
Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure by Amanda Adams
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

Smith College: Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition: Bryn Mawr and the First Generation of Women Archaeologists “Edith Hayward Hall Dohan (1877-1943)

This is the video on YouTube where I first heard of Harriet Boyd. The focus is primarily on Knossos, but the video is great.
The Ancient World: The Minoans with Bettany Hughes

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Read about other Famous Women in Science

Posted in Ancient History, Educators, Scientists, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wandering the Halls of History – On a Personal Note

Christine de Pizan lecturing men!

Christine de Pizan lecturing men!

I’m not a historian and don’t pretend to be. That may not be a wise statement to make on a history blog, but it’s the truth and I don’t necessarily believe it’s a disadvantage here. While the occasional author has popped in to comment about a woman she has written about, I think most of you are interested amateurs like I am. We know women have played a significant role throughout history, but for various reasons they haven’t gotten the recognition that they deserve. So this intrigues us, or angers us, and we seek out information or at least take note of it when we see it.

The Beginning

While I’ve always loved history, this venture began when I started collecting materials for a class I wanted to teach on the history of science and mathematics. Not long after that, health problems forced me to stop teaching and I never got to teach the class, but ended up with all these resources.

Also as a result of the end of my teaching career (at least in public schools), I ventured into the world of internet marketing. Well that didn’t last long. The people who make money that way are, as a rule, the people teaching others how to make money on the internet or affiliate marketers who sell other peoples products. Neither of which I could put my heart into. However, I learned a lot about websites, blogging, and especially WordPress that has helped me. (Although, wordpress.com has made blogging so easy now that you shouldn’t let lack of knowledge keep you from starting one if you want. Shoot me an email if I can help.)

So one day I decided to combine the two and start a blog about women in history. Actually, there were a couple of other blog attempts, but this is where I ended up about a year and a half ago.

Restored Stoa in Athens. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikipedia)

Restored Stoa in Athens. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Wandering the Halls

To be honest, I’ve struggled with the idea that I needed to be an expert to write about this topic. There are many blogs and Facebook pages run by people who are experts and it can sometimes be a little intimidating. I’ll begin to get a handle on a particular subject, for example women’s suffrage, and something else will grab my attention which I just have to read about. So I’m off on a tangent pursuing my latest interest.

I was happily maintaining the Facebook page for “Saints, Sisters, and Sluts” and I kept coming across great posts about ancient Egypt, so I started the “Ancient History Lovers” page. Then I was watching a documentary with Bettany Hughes about the ancient Minoans when she mentioned a female archaeologist named Harriet Boyd, so of course I had to read about her. You get the idea. In fact, finding interesting posts for Facebook has sometimes caused my frustration, because there just isn’t enough time to read about all the fascinating subjects and people that I encounter.

I’ve decided to call this “Wandering the Halls” syndrome. Smile It’s like wandering the halls of a great museum and learning little bits and pieces about ancient peoples or great artists, and never seeing the “whole picture.” But all those little pieces, I believe, enrich our lives.

Some halls are more complete than others. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Some halls are more complete than others. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Where to From Here?

Is this a problem? It could be, but I don’t think it has to be. When I was teaching I always considered myself more of a facilitator than a teacher. It’s an approach that isn’t always appreciated in public schools, but I started in adult education. As a rule, adults learn better the more control they have over the learning environment. Providing resources, motivation and a little guidance can lead to some of the best results.

I love to see someone discover things themselves. And if they go on to become an expert, that’s great! But, if they are also afflicted with “Wandering the Hall” syndrome, then I’ve found a kindred spirit.

I decided that I’m comfortable being a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” Many of the most interesting women I’ve learned about were because someone else mentioned them to me. That is what I want this blog to be about; information that intrigues people and makes them want to learn more. I hope I’ve done that at least for some.

Please Comment

As I said, some of the most interesting people I’ve learned about were mentioned to me by others. I would love to have more dialogue on the blog. Which of these women interest you? Can you add interesting information about them? Do you like them, dislike them, etc.? Disagreement is welcome, politely of course.

If you’ve read this far into my little tangent, thank you. The next post will be about another interesting woman. I think I know which one, but you never know what hall I might turn down! Laughing

Any thoughts?

Any thoughts?

 

Posted in On a Personal Note, Women's History | Tagged | 14 Comments

Rani Lakshmibai – Warrior Queen

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (source)

Lakshmibai was the queen of the state of Jhansi in northern India at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as India’s First War for Independence. She was a leading figure in the rebellion and a symbol for her people of resistance to British rule in India. She was young and is remembered as fearless in battle. And, she made the list of Time’s Top 10 Bad-Ass Women in 2011.

Childhood and Marriage

Born into a Brahmin family, her given name was Manikarnika and she was nicknamed Manu. Her mother died when she was four, but she was well taken care of by her father and officials at the court of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bithur where he worked. Educated at home and given more freedom than many girls her age, she trained in archery, horseback riding, and martial arts.

Manu’s birth year is given as various dates from 1827 to 1835, but sources agree that she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao in 1842. She was given the name Lakshmibai and as the Rani of Jhansi was called Rani Lakshmibai.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding. (source)

In 1851, she gave birth to a son named Damodar Rao. Unfortunately, he only lived to be four months old. After their son’s death, the Raja and Rani adopted a boy named Anand Rao, the son of Gangadhar Rao’s cousin. The adoption of Lakshmibai’s son took place in the presence of a British official. At the time he was given a letter from the Raja requesting that after his death the boy be treated with kindness as the heir, and Lakshmibai be appointed regent. The day before the Raja died in November 1853, Anand Rao was renamed Damodar Rao.

Annexation of Jhansi

Gangadhar’s grandfather had signed a treaty in 1817 with the British assuring his successors title to Jhansi and they had been pro-British since that time. But, in spite of the official precautions that the Raja took, and the long standing right of an Indian sovereign to choose his own successor, the British East India Company refused to abide by the agreement. Because Damodar Rao was adopted, they chose to apply the Doctrine of Lapse.

The Doctrine of Lapse stated that any territory under the power of the British East India Company would be automatically annexed if the ruler died without a direct heir. The policy had been used previously, but under the Governor General Lord Dalhousie between 1848 and 1856 the company took over eight different states. This contributed to a growing sense of discontent all over India.

Lakshmibai wrote at least three letters protesting the annexation and consulted British counsel John Lang, but was unsuccessful in getting it reversed. After her third appeal, April 22, 1854, an appeal was made to the Court of Directors in London. This also failed and she was given a monthly pension, the state jewels, and moved to the palace Rani Mahal.

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey, source)

Even though the government  changed hands, Lakshmibai was still recognized by the people as Rani and was probably one of the wealthiest people in Jhansi. She still had responsibilities to her son and the people and was respected, although she may have annoyed the British officials with her petitions. She also continued her practice of daily exercise including horseback riding and shooting.

The Rebellion of 1857

In May of 1857, word reached Jhansi of mutiny among sepoys in the army at Meerut. Lakshmibai asked for permission to raise a small force as bodyguard for her own protection. British officials agreed, but failed to take the same precaution themselves. On June 5th, sepoys in the Jhansi garrison rebelled, looted, released prisoners from the local jail and took possession of one of the forts in the town.

At least two British officers were killed and the rest took refuge in the other fort with their families. Two days later, the fort was besieged and they surrendered. Although promised safe passage by the mutineers, once the British were out of town one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths. They then turned their attention to Lakshmibai and demanded money.

There was little Lakshmibai could do at the time, she complied with the demands of the rebels for money under threat of violence and as soon as they left the area on June 11th she reported the situation to British authorities.  At this point, there was no government, so she took steps to stabilize the situation and three days later sent another letter to a Major Erskine who encouraged her to take charge until another official could be sent.

Over the next six months, Lakshmibai worked to protect the town and keep the situation stable. She had to defend against a rival for the throne as well as attacks from neighboring towns taking advantage of the absence of troops, and in one case claiming to act on behalf of the British. Throughout this time, she made repeated requests for help from the British and got no response. She also found it necessary to deal with the rebels in order to obtain the weapons she needed to build up her fighting force.

The Jhansi fort in 1857

The Jhansi fort in 1857 (source)

After spending most of her money and doing all she could, Lakshmibai wrote one last time to the British authorities. She closed her letter dated January 1, 1858, with this statement: “I beg you will give me your support in the best way you can, and thus save myself and the people who are reduced to the last extremity and are not able to cope with the enemy.”

The Final Showdown

There are conflicting reports of when Lakshmibai decided to oppose the British. To protect herself and Jhansi, she had been forced to cooperate with those opposed to the British; they had taken her throne from her, and the people were opposed to many things about British rule. They also received reports from villages and towns where the British had regained control. Some commanders were lenient, but others executed anyone they suspected of being a rebel, looted the towns and left the wounded to die.

The British force which marched toward Jhansi on January 5, 1858 was led by Sir Hugh Rose. He was apparently of the opinion that no leniency should be offered. One of his subordinates wrote to his parents, “Sir Hugh knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says. His first question is ‘Was this man taken with arms in his hands?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, ‘Then shoot him’ says Sir Hugh.” Hearing reports from other towns, Lakshmibai had no other choice but to expect the worst. So she prepared.

The siege began on March 21, 1858. She was given a chance to surrender, but the Rani knew that many of her supporters would be executed, so with the support of the people she refused. The British were outnumbered, but had a distinct advantage in weapons and training. The fort was surrounded and bombarded until finally a breach was made in the wall on March 30th.

At the same time, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived, forcing Rose to delay entering the fort. Even though Rose was forced to split his forces, he was able to keep continued bombardment on the breach to prevent escape while pursuing the newly arrived rebels to the Betwa river where he defeated them.

Although they were delayed, on the morning of April 3rd, the British entered the fort at Jhansi with orders to kill any male over sixteen. Vishnu Godse, a Hindu priest, wrote of the experience that it was four days of destruction of property and people “without distinction.” The fighting was intense and the Rani was in the middle of it, just as she had frequently been seen on the walls during the siege.

In spite of Rose’s precautions, sometime on April 3rd or 4th Lakshmibai was able to escape. There is a legend that says, once she knew her capture was inevitable, she tied her son to her back, mounted her horse and leapt over the cliff. The horse died, but she escaped and rode 100 miles to Kalpi. At Kalpi, she met with other rebels, but Rose pursued them and again forced them to retreat, this time to Gwalior.

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey source)

The fort at Gwalior was considered impregnable and Maharaja Sindia had remained pro-British throughout the rebellion. The British expected them to disband, but instead about 11,000 rebels advanced on Gwalior. After the first few shots, most of the Maharaja’s army defected and he fled to safety. Another Maharaja, Rao Sahib, was crowned and Lakshmibai was given a priceless pearl necklace.

On June 17th, they faced the British in battle. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, supposedly the most difficult position to defend. There are several accounts of how she died. You can read several of them at Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny, but the one I like the best is from Saul David’s book Indian Mutiny 1857, and taken from the diary of Edward Grey, a veterinary surgeon with the 8th Hussars:

“The Rani was on horseback … when the British cavalry [8th Hussars] made their surprise appearance, causing her escort to scatter … she boldly ‘attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded’, possibly by a sabre cut. A short while later as the British retired … she recognised her former assailant as she sat bleeding by the roadside and fired at him with her pistol. Unfortunately she missed and he ‘dispatched the young lady with his carbine’. But because she was ‘dressed as a sowar’, the trooper never realised ‘that he had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny, that there was a reward of a lac [lakh] on his victim’s head, or that at that moment she was wearing jewels worth a crore of rupees’.”

Rani Lakshmibai's statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha

Rani Lakshmibai’s statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha. Legend says that she escaped with Damodar tied to her back. (source)

Resources

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Early Life
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Annexation
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny
Rani LakshmibaiWikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:18, May 24, 2013.

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